From Wikipedia: “The uncanny is the psychological experience of something as strangely familiar, rather than simply mysterious. It may describe incidents where a familiar thing or event is encountered in an unsettling, eerie, or taboo context.”
As to the use of the uncanny in fiction:
“There’s a power and weight to this type of fiction, which fascinates by presenting a dark mystery beyond our ken and engaging the subconscious. Just as in real life, things don’t always quite add up, the narrative isn’t quite what we expected, and in that space we discover some of the most powerful evocations of what it means to be human or inhuman.” ~Jeff VanderMeer, “The Uncanny Power of Weird Fiction,” The Atlantic
“The uncanny freaks the reader out because it isn’t quite right – it taps into our understanding of the world and patterns around us and renders them slightly ‘off’.” ~Robert Wood, in this great article.
“This happened long before the initial signs of sickness from the outsiders rippled across my village. You should understand by now how my people were easy prey because most of us were trusting, greedy for finery, and readily distracted by new things or any semblance of finesse.”
I’m struck by the world-building of this story, how familiar it feels, while at the same time so uncannily “off” in every way.
So much of our world, our once familiar landscape, our interactions, have taken on an uncanny quality during this pandemic: The eerily deserted streets of the big cities, for example. People wear protective masks in the supermarket. A man pours wine out his apartment window into the glass of a woman leaning out her window on the floor below. Goats roam free in villages. We can draw on these uncanny images, this unsettled feeling, in our writing.
Today, I’d like you to face the strange in your flash fiction. Explore something that is oddly and unsettlingly familiar. What happens when a normally benign event takes an eerie or inappropriate turn, for example? Challenge yourself to take a subtle approach with this.
Consider how Hitchcock uses the uncanny in his films, for example, the “uncanny double” of Marion and Norman in the film, Psycho:
If you need a nudge, try using these below (from Psycho) to get you started:
In her excellent craft book, Meander, Spiral, Explode: Design and Pattern in Narrative, Jane Alison says:
“If a narrative naturally wants to flow toward its end but doesn’t want to get there yet—the pleasure’s in the journey—it might hold back by strewing conflicts, boulders, along the way, as an adventure story might. But it might be bored by classic conflict, so instead lingers by flowing along an extravagant arabesque of detours: this is what meandering narratives do. A meander begins at one point and moves toward a final one, but with digressive loops. Italo Calvino says that “digression is a strategy for putting off the ending, a multiplying of time within the work, a perpetual evasion or flight. Flight from what? From death of course.”
Read “Friday Night” by Gwen E. Kirby, published in Wigleaf. This narrative is all over the place, yet focused like a laser at the same time. Take note of the breathless structure. It’s actually one looping sentence, spilling over with emotion, yet banal in its attention to, well, that pizza. It’s funny, angry, sad, desperate, tender, real. And it’s a wonderful example of the power of meandering.
So you guessed it. Your prompt for today is to write a story that meanders in this way, keeping the central conflict on low hum the whole time. Write a first person POV breathless paragraph or sentence like this Gwen Kirby did here OR do your own thing, but don’t write in a straight line. Take detours.
I love creating lists. Especially when under duress, making a list gives me a feeling of control. There’s often a lot of subtext living in the contents of a list. I’ve come across old lists and though, whoa, what was going on when I wrote this?
Think of how much “story” you can convey, with very few words, in a simple list. Flash fiction, a form that lends itself so beautifully to innovation of form, allows you to do just that.
So that is your prompt for today: Create a story entirely or almost entirely in the form of a list. Then send it off to McSweeney’s because they love a good list story. 😉
Understandably, a lot of writers are feeling more “stuck” than usual right now. But many of us want to write, want to get in that creative zone, if for no other reason than to give ourselves an outlet and a respite.
For Day 12, I’d like to rerun a popular prompt of mine called “Fifty Random Sentences or How to Face the Blank page. Do try this one out if you haven’t seen it before! And if you have, maybe try it again for today’s writing practice. It has never failed to get my own words flowing. Here goes:
We all have experienced that frozen feeling when faced with the blank page. This is an exercise (originally published in Lascaux Review) I have used often and it’s never failed to produce a piece of fiction:
Your goal is to write fifty sentences as quickly as you can. The sentences needn’t be connected in any way. In fact, it’s better if they aren’t. Allow yourself to write whatever comes to mind no matter how weird. You’ll want to number them as you go to keep track. You may start out with a bang, then flounder around sentence #20 or so. Don’t stop. If you have to, go ahead and write a few very simple sentences, like “the car is red” just to keep the words flowing.
When you have finished, go back and read the sentences aloud. Listen for the ones that have the most juice. Where does your voice falter? Which sentences evoke strong emotion? Which ones have their own peculiar beauty? Which demand further investigation?
Now write each good sentence at the top of its own fresh sheet of paper and write new sentences beneath it. You want to follow a line of thought if you can. Move forward into a narrative if it feels right, but don’t force it. Write whatever emerges without judgment. I promise, at some point you’ll feel a sense of urgency that tells you: There’s a story here. Now tell it.
Happy writing, my friends. As always, #StayStrong ❤